Frequently asked questions 

Why should antibiotics not be used to treat coughs and colds?

All colds, and most coughs and sore throats, are caused by viruses. Antibiotics do not work against viral infections.

How should I treat my cold?

The best way to treat most colds, coughs or sore throats is to rest and drink plenty of fluids.

Colds can last about two weeks and may end with a cough that brings up phlegm. There are many over-the-counter remedies to ease the symptoms, such as paracetamol. Ask your pharmacist for advice.

If the cold lasts more than three weeks, you become breathless, have chest pains or already have a chest complaint, see your GP.

Read more about treating the common coldcoughs and sore throats.

But what about my children? They're always getting coughs and colds.

It's common for children to get coughs and colds, especially when they go to school and mix with other children. Ask your pharmacist for advice. If the symptoms persist and you're concerned, see your GP, but do not expect to be prescribed antibiotics.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Bacteria can adapt and find ways to survive the effects of an antibiotic. They become antibiotic resistant, which means the antibiotic no longer kills the bacteria.

The more we use an antibiotic, the more likely it is that bacteria will become resistant to it. Some bacteria that cause infections in hospitals, such as MRSA, are resistant to several antibiotics.

Read more information about antibiotic resistance.

Why can't other antibiotics be used instead?

Other antibiotics can be used, but they may not be as effective and have more side effects. Eventually, the bacteria will become resistant to them too.

Only two new types of antibiotics have been found in the past 30 years, and there's no guarantee new ones will be discovered.

How can antibiotic resistance be avoided?

By using antibiotics carefully, we can slow down the development of resistance. It's not possible to stop it completely, but slowing it down stops resistance spreading and buys some time to develop new types of antibiotics.

What can I do about antibiotic resistance?

You should only use antibiotics when it's appropriate to do so. We now know most coughs and colds get better just as quickly without antibiotics.

When antibiotics are prescribed, the complete course should be taken to get rid of the bacteria completely. If the course is not completed, some bacteria may be left to develop resistance.

So when will I be prescribed antibiotics?

Your doctor will only prescribe antibiotics when you need them – for example, for a kidney infection or pneumonia. Antibiotics may be life-saving for infections such as meningitis. By using them only when necessary, they are more likely to work when we need them in the future.

Page last reviewed: 05/06/2014

Next review due: 05/06/2016